The haze and the malaise

Ethnic politics makes Malaysia’s transition to a contested democracy fraught and ugly

Sep 10th 2011
Banyan | The Economist

SKYSCRAPERS and lampposts in Kuala Lumpur are still festooned with flags left over from independence day festivities at the end of August. Fittingly, this week they were shrouded in the annual “haze” of smog from forest fires on the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Malaysia’s politicians are not in the mood to celebrate nationhood and unity. Rather, with an election in the offing, everything is a chance for political point-scoring.

That includes independence itself. One huge banner in the centre of the capital shows the country’s six prime ministers since the British left in 1957, with the incumbent, Najib Razak, in the foreground, gazing into a visionary future. All six hailed from the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which has led the “Barisan Nasional” (BN) coalition government ever since 1957. Some opposition politicians now complain that the official narrative of Malaysia’s history ignores the role of non-UMNO freedom fighters. Since the most recent general election, in March 2008, the opposition has had a real chance of winning power. For the first time since independence in 1957, the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament that allowed it to amend the constitution on its own. No longer a one-coalition state, the opposition argues, Malaysia has to rethink its own history.

The next election is not due until 2013. But, out of tradition and political calculation, Mr Najib is expected to call it earlier—and to win it. Some think it could come this year, after a generous government budget in October. A crowded calendar of regional summitry makes that awkward, and Mr Najib has other reasons for delay. Since he took over in 2009, he has launched a plethora of initiatives to improve Malaysians’ lives and a “Performance and Delivery Unit” to implement them. Results take time.

Three factors, however, argue for a hasty dash to the polls. The first is that Mr Najib, who took over UMNO and the prime ministership after the BN’s unprecedentedly poor showing in 2008, still had an approval rating of 59% in a recent survey. That is well below his initial popularity, however, and he will not want to mimic Britain’s Gordon Brown in delaying too long before seeking his own mandate. Second, economic storm clouds are gathering in the West. Malaysia’s economy is still growing at over 4% a year, but is vulnerable to a downturn in external demand.

Third, the opposition coalition is in some disarray. Its figurehead, Anwar Ibrahim, is on trial for sodomy, illegal in Malaysia, and many expect him to go back to jail soon, as he did (for the same alleged offence) in 1998. He is a divisive figure. But without him, there is no obvious opposition candidate for prime minister. The president of his party is his wife, and its most impressive politician is his 30-year-old daughter, Nurul Izzah. The other components of the coalition are the Democratic Action Party, which draws its support from the Chinese minority, and an Islamic party known as PAS, whose religious conservatism alienates many liberal Malays. So there is even talk of a revival of the prime ministerial ambitions of Razaleigh Hamzah, a veteran UMNO rebel, as an opposition rallying point.

The government helpfully provided another rallying point with its cack-handed crackdown on an NGO-led protest in Kuala Lumpur in July calling for electoral reform. Mr Najib has since agreed to a parliamentary committee to look into the demands, which are mostly unexceptionable: to clean up voters’ lists, allegedly swollen with “phantoms”; to extend the election-campaign period, at present just seven to nine days; to tighten up the postal-vote system; and so on. But he has not agreed to postpone an election until after the committee has ruled.

Whatever technical reforms are made before the next election, it will still be dominated by the original sin of ethnic discrimination set out in the country’s 1957 constitution. This was designed to allay the fears of the majority ethnic-Malay population of being marginalised by Chinese and Indian minorities, which now make up respectively 23% and 7% of the population of 28m. Perks, much extended after race riots in 1969 (still often referred to in Malaysia as if they happened yesterday), gave Malays privileged access to public-sector jobs, university places, stockmarket flotations and government contracts.

Both government and opposition talk of dismantling these privileges, which have contributed to corruption and large-scale emigration. Mr Najib has indeed started tinkering with Malay privileges, much to the outrage of the UMNO right and a vocal Malay-rights ginger group known as Perkasa. Ibrahim Ali, Perkasa’s front man, argues that, with the Malay vote split, the minorities have disproportionate electoral power, to which the mainstream parties pander.

Malay power

That is nonsense. As elections loom, it is the Malay voter whose opinion matters, and he is assumed to resent any effort to curtail his privileges. And that means that both coalitions have to resort to defending the indefensible: a system in which families that have lived in Malaysia for generations are told to tolerate discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, to bolster allegedly fragile racial harmony. Malays and minorities alike lament that the races are living increasingly separate lives—studying in different schools, eating different foods and going to different parties. The divide is further widened as more Malays, who, constitutionally, are all Muslims, become religiously conservative.

The Malaysian malaise stems from the congruence of two seemingly conflicting trends. One is the healthy development of pluralist competition in a system that had seemed stuck for ever in an UMNO-dominated quasi-democracy. The other is the sharpening of ethnic and religious dividing lines. It is alarming that, instead of seeing competitive politics as a way of bridging the ethnic divide, too many Malaysian politicians see the ethnic divide as a way of winning the political competition.

from the print edition | Asia

  1. #1 by sheriff singh on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 4:14 pm

    Banyan forgets that Malaysia is not Malaya. He forgets that big chunk of real estate on Borneo Island that might be decisive to the next GE’s outcome.

    Things are a bit different there. How will the peoples in the East determine the fates and direction of the lives of the peoples in the West, to themselves and to the country as a whole?

    Will foreigners and phantoms now determine the future of the country? Will the elections be hijacked through foul means? How will the losers react?

    Too many ambiguities, uncertainties and unpredictables.

  2. #2 by Loh on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 4:30 pm

    ///It is alarming that, instead of seeing competitive politics as a way of bridging the ethnic divide, too many Malaysian politicians see the ethnic divide as a way of winning the political competition.///–Banyan

    That alarm bell should have sounded since 1969 where a coup d’etat needed an ethnic divide to justify why the riots took place. It is because of the convenience of dividing the people by race to win election that the so-called Malays special position based on weaknesses was raised as the rallying point for Malays who hailed from different anthropological groups and places of origin cemented by the Islamic religion. Yet the practices of democratic election and government policies go against the Islamic religion which is based on just and fairness and equality of all human beings irrespective of race and their characteristics.
    UMNO also practices competitive politics such as in the election of party positions. But that competition is modified with the qualifying votes in pre-election nominations. Similarly scholarship awards are based on competition which included results of interviews that included bonus points based on race and religion in the minds of the judges.

  3. #3 by Loh on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 4:59 pm

    ///Minister of Higher Education Khaled Nordin says revision of the history of Independence was unnecessary as it happened ‘recently’.///–Malaysiakini
    The Minister is or pretends to be stupid. It is because what is written in the history text differs from what happened ‘recently’ that revision is urgently needed. The Minister is not fit to be one if he could not understand why revision is necessary, and he confirms his stupidly to imply by his statement that history of the past should be revised simply because it happened long in the past.

  4. #4 by asia on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 5:16 pm

    Before independence from British rule, some freedom fighters who did not subscribe to non-violence were labeled as terrorists by the British government. The same individuals have been lauded by opposite for the same activities and hailed as ‘patriots’. Thus two different labels have been given to the same people for the same set of actions. One is calling him a terrorist while the other is calling him a patriot. Those who believed that Britain had a right to rule over country called these people terrorists, while those who were of the view that Britain had no right to rule country called them patriots and freedom fighters.

    It is therefore important that before a person is judged, he is given a fair hearing. Both sides of the argument should be heard, the situation should be analyzed, and the reason and the intention of the person should be taken into account, and then the person can be judged accordingly.

  5. #5 by boh-liao on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 5:25 pm

    Did NR, RM n UmnoB pay The Economist 2 publish dis article?

  6. #6 by yhsiew on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 6:53 pm

    ///too many Malaysian politicians see the ethnic divide as a way of winning the political competition.///

    Finally the Economist concluded that Najib’s 1Malaysia has failed miserably to unite Malaysians of different races, creeds and cultures.

  7. #7 by Loh on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 7:49 pm

    ///Japan too, just like the CPM, claims that they did not embark on a war of aggression but were trying to free Malaya from British colonial rule. But Japan, just like the CPM, also lost the war. And they killed many more people in three years compared to the Communists in 43 years.

    It is good we condemn the CPM and the militant arm of the CPM, the CTs. After all, 4,700 died because of them over a period of 43 years. But why do we not also condemn the Japanese when because of them 100,000 people died in just three years?

    Japan is now our friend. Why? Is it because they surrendered and signed a peace treaty so the 100,000 deaths can now be forgiven? The CPM also surrendered and signed a peace treaty. But they are not forgiven.

    The British too killed many people when they colonised Malaya for almost 200 years. Many of these people killed were freedom fighters who opposed British colonial rule. And many were innocent non-combatants like women, children, old folks and villagers.

    Somehow, the British and Japanese have been forgiven even though they killed more people than the CTs did. But the CPM is not forgiven. We have buried the hatchet when it comes to Britain and Japan. We refuse to do the same when to comes to the CPM.

    This is what I fail to comprehend. And why is the US and their allies still our friend when they invade sovereign nations and kill its citizens in numbers that far exceeds what the CPM did? This, I also can’t seem to understand.///–RPK

    It is domestic politics not to recognize the effect of CPM on British giving up its colony. Malaysia has to forget what Japan did to Malaya out of fear, or is it out of the love for yen.

  8. #8 by tak tahan on Friday, 9 September 2011 - 10:20 pm

    Money talk is so important to UmnoPutras.They can’t afford to phark English for fear their children studying there will be clubbed like the Bersih police.But sad or glad depending on one’s feel the Queen could mocked our Mr Prime Minister by wearing yellow dress.As for me,thank you Queen Elizabeth.God bless you on earth and in heaven.They also can’t afford to phark Nipponjin cause there would be no more Suzuki,Toyota,Honda,kawasaki,Yamaha ect cupchai APs for Umnoputras.The Putras instead will bow lower in degree(in fact reaching their own dindong) than the Nippon sans do.Chin peng and members will have to wait to return when PR took over Putrajaya.

  9. #9 by Bigjoe on Saturday, 10 September 2011 - 8:08 am

    Since we are talking about haze, WTF is going on with the 6% service tax due in Sept 15? According to the telcos, the tax was imposed in 1998 and they have been absorbing it since. BUT our own PM said that it has nothing to do with the Ministry of Finance?

    Either the telcos are lying, over-extending their power or Najib is being a biggest freaking JERK in the world.
    How is it possible for the telco’s to impose taxes? Only the govt has the right to impose taxes. If the telcos are lying, then they are breaking a number of laws and should be fined.

    Otherwise, what we are seeing is simple the BIGGEST ACT OF COWARDICE and irresponsibility of a leader of a nation. Its simply the most pathetic excuse to say the telcos are imposing the taxes when it originated with the govt. Not only its the most pathetic, the act of cowardice is the simply STUPID – its not possible to get away with it. For someone, who’s core administrative policy is PR-based, that he does not see the logic of his stupidity simply calls for his very resignation with immediate effect..

  10. #10 by waterfrontcoolie on Saturday, 10 September 2011 - 10:36 am

    This morning it is reported that Chin is NOT aware of the proposal to sell IWK for $1.00. Surprised? No, we are not the least! You are just a Mandore not the REAL Minister in charge, the power to decide that comes from your BOSS, the puppet-makers! And you know who; please don’t insult yourself by asking too many questions or you will aksed to SHUT_UP!

  11. #11 by Jeffrey on Saturday, 10 September 2011 - 5:34 pm

    It’s intriguing how Banyan | The Economist views Anwar – he is described as a “figurehead” and at same time made to look quite indispensable when it is said that “without him, there is no obvious opposition candidate for prime minister”! If he were a figure head, who then is the real puppet master in the Opposition?

  12. #12 by boh-liao on Thursday, 15 September 2011 - 10:38 am

    Did NR n HH command dat dis article b blackened in d Sep 10th 2011 issue of The Economist?

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